Governance, Leadership, SEND

Bugs, viruses and ransomware in the SEND system

By Anita Devi

SEND = special educational needs and disability

It all started back in 2014.  For three long years prior, we had dreamed, shared, debated and imagined a better way of supporting SEND learners into adulthood.  The Bill finally became an Act in Parliament, then the summer recess was looming, and the SEND Code of Practice 2014 was rushed through both Houses.  We knew there were bugs in the Code.  Some of us even highlighted it, the moment the final Code was published.  Too late!  If only they had checked for meaning, accuracy and shared understanding.  With the Code full of bugs … people and organisations already started saying it needed ‘fixing’.  Some, including myself were focused on enabling – change was happening fast.  Multiple cycles, on multiple timelines.  The truth is the system needed debugging.  The 2015 revision did not address any of the bugs; just added a few extensions.  Maybe I should have been more vociferous about the bugs back then.  The thing with bugs is all it takes is a character, a word or a letter out of place, and we are in the bug zone!  So many parts of the SEND Code would change if a word, letter or character was omitted, or even added.

Then came the viruses!  Implementing the SEND Code requires tacit knowledge, lived out experience, and an approach that does not solely rely on school-to-school support.  Without these and the addition of social media, poor understanding of implementation and bad information has gone viral. I started to notice this first in 2014.  The same errors of interpretation appearing in schools geographically apart and not connected.  The errors were extremely specific.  I followed the trail and tracked down the source.  As a teacher, I’m skilled at looking out for common errors.  Be that via copying or generic misconceptions.  It took the best part of two years.  A group of well-meaning professionals (with no background in SEND) all sharing the same incorrect information.  We tackled some of this by sharing knowledge and different ways of working.  In a system predicted on choice, we were offering ‘choice’.  Not everyone liked this.  Centrally funded projects were given precedence, though there was no robust quality assurance in place.  The myth of being ‘free’ was the marketing strategy.  It was not free – there was a cost.  Resources distracted from the front line and pollution.  These projects, in some cases accelerated the viruses.  Overtime, the viruses mutated and in 2021, we are seeing a new kind of virus emerge in settings and feeding those new to the profession.  Too much of our energy is spent on undoing the issues, rather than building new and different for generational impact.

Ransomware is when ‘access is denied’ unless a price is paid.  This became the norm, on so many levels. Local government, law firms and practitioners.  It was the learners who missed out. They missed out on the opportunities, the possibilities, and innovative solutions for supporting increasing independence.  Not all, but most. Ransomware is not just about funding; it also feeds of control and insecurities. It’s a subtle beast, so what ‘appears’ helpful may actually be doing harm and what appears odd, may be what’s needed.  The beast has no conscience and as such can attack individuals and organisations alike, with little thought to the consequences of actions.  Therefore, tacit knowledge and lived-out experience of SEND is necessary. Parents and carers bring their tacit knowledge and lived-out experience to the table, but it saddens me to say, not all practitioners or colleagues do.  Of the few that do, few discern consequential behaviours.  It is easier to play ‘here’s the problem’ on repeat, than find solutions of a win: win for all.  Having led a few local authorities change projects – some well, some not so well … I know how hard this is. However, when parents/ careers bring their subjective tacit knowledge to the table and practitioners bring their objective tacit knowledge, that is when there is really innovative thinking.  Each voice valued.  Each voice adding to our understanding.  No single perspective can determine or support special educational needs and disability.  We know that.

Review after review, we are stuck in a reboot time loop.  Things keep changing, so by the time a SEND review is complete … the system has morphed into the next hybrid, fueled by the bugs and mutated viruses, and transported to another dimension by ransomware. The complexity of stakeholder involvement, funding and the system has made it into a beast. And it all started with a few bugs.

Everyone talks about the SEND system, as if it is out there … here is the reality:  everyone of us is part of the system.  That is why blame and shame do not work. Each one of us is part of the problem and the solution. When we point fingers, we’re including ourselves and this debilitates our creative thinking for new solutions and the wider good.

There is hope …

Whilst it may seem overwhelming, there is a way forward, but it requires 5 things:

  1. A humble acceptance that each one of us is part of the system.
  2. A circuit breaker to unlock the SEND Review time loop. We need to try something different and fast.
  3. Leadership that is born out of experience, not position or power.
  4. A move away from fixating on the literal meaning of implementation to going deeper and finding new flexible solutions that support a wide range of needs and embrace the diversity of stakeholders.
  5. Trust.

The last one is the hardest, and the most important. It was the driver for the SEND Reforms in the first place.  However, if you examine The Lamb Enquiry 2009 it does imply, once learners and families received the support, they needed (not necessarily wanted), they were highly satisfied.  So, there are some seeds of trust in the system, which we need to build on and germinate.

In October 2020, my main PC system crashed. There was a lot going on and we were supporting (new and experienced) SENCOs and SEND Leaders deal with COVID19 arrangements of returning to a routine. There was no time to focus on what was not working, just doing what needed doing.  I started working off my laptop. This was fine, at first.  However, the smaller single screen and flat keyboard eventually led to other challenges.  Many IT specialists spent hours trying to reboot and recover my PC through remote access.  Nada!  Just before Easter, (6 months on from the initial crash), I decided to approach the problem from a different angle.  I isolated my laptop system and elements of my PC and then rebuilt different parts piece by piece.  It took 10 hours and required me to dig deep and use my O’ Level knowledge on coding – but it worked.  I broke the reboot loop and then rebuilt a new system.

We can do the same in SEND.  We need to isolate elements, focus on these to rebuild a new system.  We cannot rebuild the whole thing in one go.

I am no coding or computer expert.  But I do know SEND.  I have spent some time recently thinking about what we can isolate, rebuild, and add to shift the system much quicker than any review would.  For many the word ‘isolate’ will kick against their passion for inclusion.  I am not talking about isolating learners but isolating the bugs and viruses and shutting down access to ransomware viruses. It will require us to work together and differently. 

Are you up for the challenge of reboot, rebuild and reconnect, so this generation and the next have access to the support they need and deserve?  It is a choice we all have to make.

#TeamADL You know, we know SEND Leadership – subscribe to our blog and follow us on social media to keep up to date www.teamadl.uk

About Anita Devi

As a former SENCO, Senior Leader, School Improvement Advisor, local authority SEND Advisory Teacher and Healthwatch Trustee, Anita Devi carries a wealth of experience in developing Leaders of Learning.  Her own teaching career spans early years to post grad in the UK and overseas and Anita lives her why through her belief in the joy of learning and the power of purpose.  In 2017, Anita was awarded the prestigious international Influential Educational Leaders Award for her SEND Leadership Pipeline strategy developing professionals from initial teacher training to advanced and experienced SENCOs.  Currently a PT PhD student, ChangeMaker Education Consultant & Founding CEO of #TeamADL (a not-for-profit) In 2019, the team were selected as finalists for The Disability Awards alongside some top multinational companies. More recently, working with NASBTT, Anita has written the first SEND book for Early Career Teachers.  #TeamADL have also launched in 2020 SEND Leaders Connect Advanced and SEND Leaders’ Appreciation Day. Here is the link to SEND Leaders Appreciation Day 2021 #SLAD2021 – start nominating!

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